Now it seems to represent some kind of dream—but what kind of dream could that be? A house so huge it required five live-in servants to maintain it; that was usually either too hot or too cold; that held no cozy corners for quiet reading; that seemed to require its inhabitants to be always dressed up and on display….
My place in Louisville is an old farm called Wolf Pen because it lies along Wolf Pen Creek, a few miles from the mansion.
My 420 acres were put together piece by piece, over a long period of time. Eva Lee Smith Cooper was the founder; she came from Tennessee to Kentucky with her three little boys after her husband was murdered—a murder that has never been solved.
Buying ten acres along the creek, with an old grist mill and a cabin, she settled in and stayed there for the rest of her life, with occasional sojourns in Paris; the story has it that once when she was about to leave for the transatlantic trip, her barn caught on fire, but she went anyway.
Her children and grandchildren continued to live at the farm, building various houses, and they continue to love it and frequently visit; but for various reasons, they put the place on the market in the 1980’s.
I’d ridden my mare to Wolf Pen when I was a teenager, crossing under the throughway through an enormous culvert; I was always looking for open country, unfenced wild land. And I found it at Wolf Pen; by then Mrs. Cooper had become a little weary of the sightseers who visited her mill—she ran it, grinding corn meal for the diner on the L&N railroad (her father was president) and was said to keep a shot gun to run off intruders.
She never ran me off, but I passed below her house as quietly as I could, riding beyond the mill on a rocky unpaved road, the old road to Cincinnati, to reach the astonishing triple waterfall that bounded her place.
When, decades later, the farm came on the market, developers immediately swooped in; it is surrounded on all sides by sprawl.
I couldn’t let it be torn up. I couldn’t afford it, either, but managed to buy it and then the adjacent farm when it too came up for sale.
Two and a half decades later, we are again running the mill and will grind our first corn in the spring.
My cabin on the farm is next door to primitive; last weekend when I visited, the temperature hovered around 7 degrees, and the heat had failed. Only stuffing the big stone fireplace with logs every two or three hours kept us from freezing.
My question is: why does a beautiful old farm matter less to many people than the trumped up grandeur of an “estate”?
Wolf Pen is the way many people in this country lived, when we were still agrarian and made do with much less, in the material sense, than we consider essential now. We lived in a few small rooms, we farmed, milled, carpentered, built, ran cattle or horses—managed to survive.
The “estate” and all others like it—and there are quite a few—memorializes something completely different, the life of English country gentry; it represents a dream the American Revolution was supposed to put to rest.
But apparently, it didn’t. We still want to look at TV serials about British upper class life and the servants who maintained it; we still want to imagine—I guess—that we might live that way too.
I know I’m sounding cranky—but I do believe we are on the wrong track when we look to traditions that have nothing to do with the lives of most people in this country, traditions founded on exclusion and snobbery and pretension—the essential ingredients of those houses called estates.